Posted on behalf of yankluver
Spoilers: "Nightingale" and other general spoilers from episodes following it. Also, this story was born from a spoiler in the description of episode 20 that I interpreted my own way and then went from there.
Disclaimer: Alias and its characters do not belong to me. I do this out of
a love for the show and no infringement is intended.
Summary: Jack and Vaughn meet, during which a shocking revelation is made and resulting in a surprising turn of events.
Jack took his seat across from Vaughn at the outdoor cafe. They exchanged nods by way of a greeting.
Vaughn leaned forward in his seat. "Thank you for meeting me."
"You said it was important."
Vaughn took a deep breath and looked at Jack. He could tell he was already trying Jack's patience. He cleared his throat and began.
"Before Sydney disappeared and everyone thought she had died, we were planning on going to Santa Barbara. I was going to propose to her that weekend. I had it all planned out. Obviously, things don't always go as planned."
Jack simply stared back at Vaughn, apparently waiting for him to reach the part that concerned him.
"When I decided I was going to propose to Sydney, I never considered telling you or asking for your blessing. And it wasn't because I felt it was old-fashioned. It was because I knew what you would have said. You would have told me I wasn't good enough for your daughter. You know what? You would have been right. No one's good enough for Sydney. She's the most amazing woman I've ever met and I thank God everyday for her." Vaughn smiled. "Lucky for me though, she hasn't realized I'm not worthy of her yet." Vaughn paused and then went on, "So, you're probably wondering why I'm telling you all of this now." Jack raised an eyebrow and nodded ever so slightly. "I didn't tell you then because I knew what you'd say and, back then, if you'd said it, I would have changed my mind about proposing. But things have changed. Nothing you say, no matter how true, can change my mind. I don't need your blessing. I love your daughter and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. I'm telling you this now because I respect you, Jack."
Jack stared at Vaughn for a long moment before speaking. "You're not the first man to tell me of his intention to marry my daughter."
Vaughn nodded. "Danny."
"Yes, and do you know what I told him?"
Vaughn shook his head.
"I told him that Sydney didn't care about my opinion and that if he knew her at all he wouldn't have thought to ask for my approval."
Vaughn sighed, "Jack-..."
"I told him that I knew it didn't matter what I said, that it was just a courtesy call. He was trying to follow some out-dated tradition. Whether or not I approved, he would do as he had already planned." Jack paused and looked at Vaughn. "But here you sit telling me that if you had told me of your plans years ago and I deemed you unworthy of my daughter, then you would have reconsidered. The fact that you would have reconsidered, despite your feelings for Sydney and her feelings for you, tells me you weren't ready to spend your life with my daughter back then. And the fact that nothing I can say can change your mind now tells me you are."
Vaughn breathed a sigh of relief.
Jack went on. "It's true I don't believe any man is worthy of my daughter, but I realized a long time ago that you would do anything to protect her. You would risk your career and life. I can't ask for more than that."
Jack reached out for his cup of coffee and Vaughn noticed his hand tremble.
"Jack, are you all right?"
Jack quickly placed his hand back under the table. "I'm fine."
Jack was just about the best liar Vaughn had ever met, but he had seen right through that lie. Jack could normally look you in the eye and lie right to your face without hesitation. This time, he couldn't meet Vaughn's eyes.
"Something's wrong, Jack."
Jack stood to leave, but had to brace himself on the table so as not to fall. He took a deep breath and slowly sat back down.
Vaughn swallowed hard. "Tell me what's going on. Sydney has a right to know."
"No," Jack said sharply. "Sydney can never know."
"Never know what?"
Jack looked him directly in the eye. "When Sydney was caught in that chamber, Marshall wasn't the one who stopped the reactor. I went to the room with the reactor."
"But that would mean-..." Vaughn said, eyes widening.
"That I was exposed to lethal amounts of radiation, yes."
Vaughn's mouth grew slack. It took him a moment to recover. He rubbed at his face.
"Have you been to the doctor? Is there anything that can be done?"
"No, there is not."
Vaughn shook his head in disbelief.
"How long?" he managed weakly.
Vaughn simply stared at Jack, unable to comprehend that this man who had always seemed indomitable was slowly dying.
"Jack, you can't keep this from Sydney. She deserves to know."
"No, she deserves to live a happy life, free of any guilt this will cause her. She has already endured more pain than anyone should have to. I don't want her to live with this. This should be a happy time for her. If all goes as you hope, she'll be getting married."
"And she won't get to have her father walk her down the aisle. Do you honestly think that's what she wants? Jack, if you tell her, then we can have the wedding as soon as possible. You can be there."
"I've spent my life trying to protect my daughter, physically and emotionally. I've lied to her to spare her the pain of the truth. This is no different."
"And she always discovered the truth eventually and your deception. Do you really want your last moments with your daughter to be about that?"
Jack offered no response, but moved his eyes to the ground.
Vaughn sighed. "She's going to figure out something's wrong, Jack. It didn't take me long. Look, I think you should tell her the truth about what you did for her and what's happening to you because of it, but I will respect your decision not to. But you have to tell her you're dying. You can give her any reason you want. She just needs to know."
Jack snickered. "What do you expect me to do? Say I'm dying of cancer? You say you love my daughter and want to spend the rest of your life with her. Then you should know her well enough to realize that she doesn't just accept what people tell her. She won't want to accept that nothing can be done for me. She'll insist on speaking to my doctors and seeking the best medical treatment the world has to offer."
Vaughn nodded. "You're right, she will. It's what you would do for her, isn't it?"
Jack remained silent. Vaughn shook his head, as his thoughts moved to what Jack had done for Sydney. "I never even thought to go to the room with the reactor. Sydney would have died if you hadn't been there."
"You didn't consider it because you knew the consequences. It wasn't a viable option."
"But I've risked my life for Sydney before."
"Yes, you have. But this was different. You would have been knowingly trading your life for hers. It wasn't a risk. It was a certainty. It didn't even enter your mind because you knew Sydney wouldn't have wanted it that way."
"But you did it."
"I'm her father. I went in there knowing I was sealing my fate. And it didn't matter because I also knew I was saving my daughter. When you have a child of your own and you hold him or her in your arms for the first time, you'll know you would have done the exact same thing in my position. It's what fathers do."
Vaughn nodded and then took a minute before going on. "What do you plan on doing, Jack? Sydney will know something's wrong soon enough. You can't hide it forever."
"Fortunately for me, forever is only three months. As I said, if I tell Sydney I have some random disease, she will seek answers, treatments. And her search will lead her to the truth; it always does. I can't have that. My efforts to protect my daughter have often led to pain, but I have always had her best interest at heart. This time is no different. I won't have her spend the rest of her life feeling guilty over the loss of mine. It was my choice and I do not regret it. I did it so she would have a life to live. My death will not be in vain, but I will not let it be a constant burden to my daughter either."
Vaughn squeezed his eyes shut. "Three months, Jack. How can you hide it for three months?"
"I had a meeting with Chase this afternoon. APO is currently in the process of creating a branch on the East Coast. I was offered the position of overseeing the process a month ago, but declined it. I have reconsidered. I leave for New York in a week. It will be a temporary position, not more than two months. I will fulfill my responsibilities and then..."
"Then what?" Vaughn asked sharply. "Die alone in some lonely hotel room? Spend your last moments without the one person in this world who truly loves you?"
Jack's jaw tightened. "I'd almost forgotten about your flair for the dramatic."
Vaughn took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "And Sydney is to be told what?"
"She will be informed of my death. A heart attack. I will arrange to be cremated before she can see my remains in whatever condition they will be."
Vaughn ran a hand through his hair and shook his head. "And you expect me to keep this all from Sydney?"
"I expect that you love my daughter enough to do what is best for her."
Vaughn was beginning to sound like a broken record. "Three months, Jack. Three months that Sydney could spend with you."
Vaughn could tell Jack was growing irritated. "We've been through this. Despite my aforementioned reasons, I also don't want my daughter to watch me waste away into nothing. I'm sure you can understand that."
Vaughn shook his head. "You and Sydney spent years not getting along. You lost all of that time, Jack. But you two have finally forged a relationship. Sydney deserves to spend every moment she can with you."
Jack stared at Vaughn for a long moment before going on, his voice low. "I haven't been the best father. During her childhood, I was absent, physically and emotionally. I have never been able to give Sydney the father she deserves and I can't give her back the time we lost. But I can give her this. I can give her a future without the painful memories of her father slowly fading away."
Vaughn leaned back in his chair and bit at his lip. Then he leaned forward and looked Jack straight in the eye. "I lost my father when I was eight years old. Two men came to the door and told my mother that my father was dead. I stood at his funeral trying not to cry. I never got to say goodbye. I never got to see his body. He just went on a business trip, like he'd done countless times before, but this time he never came back. For a long time, it didn't feel real. It felt like he just hadn't returned from his trip yet." Vaughn swallowed against the lump in his throat. "That's why it was so easy to convince me my father might still be alive. Suddenly, I was eight years old again, wanting to believe he was just on a really long trip. There was still that kid inside of me who had never felt it was real. And I would have done anything to see him again, if only for a moment...just to have a chance to say goodbye." Vaughn cleared his throat and blinked back some tears. "After my dad died, people would come up to me and try to say comforting things. They would say things like at least he didn't have a long illness and at least I didn't have to watch him die. I never understood that. I would have given anything to spend even a few more moments with him. There's no way to really be prepared, but to have some idea it's coming...it would have made it more real. It would have given me a chance to say goodbye. I don't know. Maybe that's selfish. Wishing my father would have suffered through a long illness just so I could spent a few more moments with him and have a chance to say goodbye. But if I were given the choice, that's what I would have chosen. And I think my father would have relished the opportunity to spend even a little more time with me and my mother, say the things he'd always meant to say but never had, and say goodbye."
Vaughn finished with a sigh and looked at Jack, who showed no sign of emotion. Vaughn stood and looked down at him. "I can't force you to tell Sydney that you're dying, Jack, but I can't keep your secret either. I won't do that to Sydney. If you leave for that assignment in New York in a week without having told her, then I will. And I'll book her the next flight out myself." Vaughn took his wallet out and threw some bills down on the table. "I'll give her what I never had: time. That's how much I love your daughter."
With that, Vaughn turned on his heel and walked away. Jack's eyes followed Vaughn's figure out of sight. Then he placed his hand on the chair to brace himself before standing.
* * *
Vaughn found Sydney standing outside the arcade where they were supposed to meet. They loved spending time at the arcade together. There was SkeeBall and air hockey. Sure, they were usually the oldest people there without children, but it didn't matter. They laughed and talked and generally just enjoyed being with each other. At the end of the night, they would find some little kid and give him all the tickets they had earned. Seeing the smile on the kid's face was one of their greatest little pleasures.
Vaughn kissed Sydney. "Hi. Sorry I'm late."
She smiled good-naturedly, "I was beginning to think I'd been stood up. Air hockey just isn't as fun with only one person."
"I had something to take care of and it ran a little long," he said, unable to keep the seriousness out of his voice.
Sydney's brow wrinkled. "Are you okay? You don't seem like yourself."
He nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why don't we go inside?"
Vaughn held the door open and then followed Sydney inside. The noise immediately assaulted his senses. He squeezed his eyes shut. How was he going to do this? How was he supposed to act like everything was fine when he knew the life of the woman he loved was about to change forever? In one week's time, it would be different. Whether he was the one who made it happen or Jack did, things would be different.
He was constantly amazed at how fast things changed in his life. A mere hour ago, his biggest concern was telling Jack he was going to propose to Sydney. In one week's time, everything was supposed to be different, but for another reason entirely. That's when he had planned on proposing to Sydney. But now he couldn't even think about that. It would happen eventually, when the time was as right as it could be, but not now. Vaughn knew one thing though: he would propose to Sydney and, if she accepted, they would marry before Jack died. Sydney deserved to have her father there.
Sydney put a few dollars into the token machine and received some tokens. She and Vaughn walked to the air hockey table and Sydney placed some tokens in. They took their spots opposite each other and Sydney hit the puck to Vaughn. He missed it.
He smiled weakly. "The light was in my eyes."
He retrieved the puck and hit it back towards her. Sydney blocked the puck and sent it sailing back towards him. He missed it again.
Sydney placed her hands on her hips. "Are you letting me win?"
He managed a grin. "I don't have to let you win. You usually beat me quite convincingly."
"I know," she said with a wide smile. "I'm much better at hockey when there's no ice."
Vaughn hit the puck back to Sydney and she blocked it. She sent it back his way and he hit it so hard it bounced off the side of the table and flipped onto the floor. Sydney threw him a look and went to pick up the puck. She placed it down on the table and then went to stand beside him. She placed her hand in his.
"Let's go talk," she whispered to him.
Vaughn sighed. "Sydney, I'm fine. I just suck at air hockey today."
Sydney shook her head. "You don't think I know you well enough to know when you're not fine? Something's bothering you. Is it about what happened with your father?"
Vaughn didn't answer, but led her outside. The still, crisp air was a welcome change to the stifling atmosphere of the arcade. They sat down on a bench.
Sydney turned to him. "Tell me what's wrong, Vaughn. I want to help."
He wanted to tell her so badly. He hated keeping secrets from her. But he had promised Jack he would give him a week. He hoped Jack would make the right decision. He wasn't the one who should tell her something like this. Jack should be the one. But, if he forced his hand, Vaughn would do it.
Sydney wasn't wrong though. What happened with his father was still on his mind, along with everything else. In a way, it was like he had lost him all over again.
He cleared his throat. "I called my mother today. I hadn't spoken to her in a while and, after what happened with my father, I really needed to hear her voice."
"You didn't tell her anything though, did you?"
He shook his head. "No, there was no point. I kept thinking how disappointed she would have been in me if she knew that I had believed those things about my father for even a minute. That he could have left his family, betrayed his country. I wanted him to be alive so badly, I wanted to see him again so much, that I was willing to believe anything about him. After my father died, my mother made sure I never forgot him. She told me stories and showed me pictures. She made sure I knew that my father was a good, brave man who died for his country. I can't believe I ever let myself think otherwise."
Sydney placed her hand over his. "You wanted him to be alive. There's nothing wrong with that. After everything my mother did, I was still so happy to see her alive again. That's just a part of being human, Vaughn."
Vaughn met her eyes. "Did you ever wish you had gotten a chance to say goodbye? When you were little and you thought your mother had died in a car accident, did you ever wish you had gotten a chance to say goodbye?"
Sydney nodded. "All the time. I didn't even go to her funeral. My father wouldn't let me. He said I was too young. He wanted to protect me. He said it was the best thing for me. But I think it would have helped. I know now that her body wasn't in there, but just being there would have helped it seem more real. I was young and it took a long time to really understand that she wasn't coming back."
Vaughn nodded. He knew she felt that way. That's why he knew she would want the same chance with her father.
"I felt the same way about my father," he said.
Sydney placed her head on his shoulder and he wrapped his arm around her.
* * * *
One week later, Jack stood outside Sydney's door. He had been standing there nearly five minutes, but had yet to knock. He was trying to find the right words, but was beginning to realize they didn't exist.
He took a deep breath and raised his hand to knock, just as the door swung open revealing Vaughn.
"I'm leaving to pick up the Chinese!" he yelled to Sydney, who was out of sight. He was putting his jacket on and searching for his keys in his pockets when he opened the door, so he didn't immediately notice Jack. His eyes finally landed on Jack's face and he stopped moving.
"Hello. I hope I'm not interrupting something important."
Vaughn shook his head. "No, I was just leaving to pick up dinner."
"Very well then."
They stood in uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Vaughn finally broke it. "It's been a week. I assume you're here to tell Sydney the truth."
"I would be in New York right now if it weren't for you. If Sydney is going to find out, then it has to be from me."
"The whole truth?" Vaughn asked.
"I suppose the absolute truth is the last thing I can give my daughter."
"You're doing the right thing, Jack."
Jack offered him a thin smile. "Your concept of right and wrong has always been black and white. Maybe someday you'll realize that the world doesn't always operate in such a way."
"It does this time, Jack. You said you expected me to do the best thing for Sydney. This is it."
Jack's jaw tightened. "I believe your Chinese food is waiting."
Vaughn nodded and then walked past him. Jack crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him. He stood awkwardly, unsure of what to do next. Sydney came from the direction of the bedroom a moment later.
"Oh. Dad. Hi," she said, more than a little surprised to find him there.
"Hello, Sydney. I apologize for coming unannounced. Vaughn let me in on his way out."
Sydney shrugged. "No, that's okay. Um, can I get you anything?"
He shook his head. "No, I can't stay long. I came to discuss something important with you."
Sydney could tell from his demeanor that important also meant bad. She was well-acquainted with that particular demeanor.
"Oh, all right. Why don't you have a seat?" she said.
"I'd prefer to stand."
Sydney smiled nervously. "Something tells me I'd prefer to sit."
Sydney took a seat on the couch and Jack followed her. He perched on the edge of the couch and turned to face his daughter. He stared at her for a long moment, his throat suddenly feeling dry. He swallowed and took a deep breath.
"What I am about to tell you will come as a shock, Sydney."
His tone was enough to cause tears to spring to her eyes. She blinked them back. She was used to receiving shocking news. It seemed to be a weekly occurrence in her life. Still, it never got any easier to hear.
"Well, then it must be Tuesday," she said, her lips quivering into a shaky smile.
"There's no easy way to say this."
"There never is."
Jack looked her directly in the eyes. "I'm dying, Sydney."
Sydney's mouth dropped open. Her brow furrowed in confusion. She swallowed hard and tried to form a coherent sentence. "You're what? I...I don't understand. There must be some kind of mistake."
Jack shook his head stiffly. "There is no mistake."
A tear slid unnoticed down Sydney's cheek. "There must be something that can be done. What is it? What's wrong?"
Jack removed his eyes from hers. A lie would be so much easier than the truth. He wondered at what point in his life it became easier to lie than to tell the truth.
He slowly returned his gaze to hers. "At the power plant, when you were caught in the test chamber, Marshall didn't stop the reactor. I did."
"I don't understand. How?"
"I went to the room where the reactor was held."
Sydney brought her hand up to her mouth. She squeezed her eyes shut and a few tears slid out from beneath her eyelids and cascaded down her face. She slowly opened her eyes again.
"You're dying from exposure to nuclear radiation," she stated, her voice shaking. "Why, Dad? Why did you do it?"
"You know why, Sydney. You wouldn't be here right now if I hadn't."
"I never would have asked you to-..."
"I know you wouldn't. You didn't have to. I did it because I'm your father and I love you. I don't regret it."
Sydney took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "There must be something that can be done. Have you seen a doctor?"
"Of course. Nothing can be done."
She wiped at a few tears on her face and asked softly, "How long?"
Any remaining color drained from her face. "Three months? That's it? There's nothing that can be done to give you more time?
"I've seen the best doctors, Sydney. There's nothing that can be done."
Sydney shook her head sharply. "I don't accept that. There must be a treatment somewhere, something experimental. We just have to-..."
"Sydney," Jack said, cutting her off. "I know this isn't easy to accept and I understand that your first instinct is to explore every avenue, but you have to listen to me now. Doing so would be a waste of the little time we have left together. There's nothing more that can be done."
Sydney's chest deflated. She moved closer to her father and fell into his waiting arms. Sydney allowed the tears to fall, as reality slowly began to set in. After a few long moments, she pulled back from her father and wiped at her face with the back of her hand.
Jack moved a stray piece of hair out of her face. "I need you to promise me something. I wasn't going to tell you the truth, Sydney. I wasn't going to tell you I went into that room. I wasn't even going to tell you that I was dying. I planned on taking a position in New York and spending my last days there. I didn't want you to live with any guilt over what happened to me. I didn't want you to watch me waste away. The only reason I'm here right now is because Vaughn forced my hand."
Sydney's eyes widened. "Vaughn knows?"
Jack nodded. "A week ago, he witnessed the physical effects this has taken on my body. He knew something was wrong, so I told him the truth. I told him of my wishes to keep this from you, but he told me that if I didn't tell you that I was dying, then he would. He didn't want you to miss out on the remaining time we have together."
Sydney pressed at an invisible wrinkle on her pants. "And you just wanted to protect me."
"I want you to be happy, Sydney. This was my choice. I want you to promise me that you won't feel any guilt over this. I need to know that I haven't left you with that burden."
Sydney lifted her eyes to her father's face. He was asking her for the impossible. How could she not feel any guilt over this? He had traded his life for hers. This was not a spontaneous decision made when there is no time to think of the risk or consequences, when you act on instinct. He acted with aforethought. He knew the consequences of his decision and he did it anyway. How could she not carry that with her forever?
But, as she looked into the steely eyes of her father that seemed just a little bit broken now, she knew he needed this. He needed to hear it, whether or not it was true.
She placed her hand over his. "I promise." Then she lowered her head and watched as a tear fell onto the couch.
Jack's trembling hand reached out and he placed his thumb and forefinger beneath her chin, lifting her head up. Her gaze met his.
He swallowed hard. "Please try to be happy, Sydney. When you're ready, leave this life. Find something you love to do. This was never what you wanted to spend your life doing. You can be so much more." He paused for a moment and then went on. "I realize now that you've never really needed my protection. You're an incredibly strong, brave, intelligent woman and I am proud to call you my daughter. I respect the choices you have made. I want you to know that I believe you have found someone worthy to spend your life with in Vaughn. I hope you can have the life you've always deserved with him."
Sydney could feel her chin begin to tremble. "It sounds like you're saying goodbye. This isn't the end, Dad. I'm going to spend every moment I can with you."
Jack offered her a thin smile. "I look forward to it." His smiled faded. "I've never been the father you deserved to have, Sydney."
"Don't say that, Dad," Sydney whispered.
"What's happening now doesn't change the past. You deserved better, you deserved more. I can't change any of that now. I just hope that someday you'll be able to forgive me."
Sydney could feel her throat begin to close up. Her voice emerged low and raspy, but with a sincerity that could not be denied. "I have never been more proud to call you my father. You may not have always been there for me in the traditional sense. And you have used lies to protect me from the truth. But you'd be hard pressed to find another father who would sacrifice for his child what you are sacrificing for me. Fathers say they would lay down their lives for their children, but they are rarely called upon to make good on that statement. But you did, without hesitation." She paused and blinked back a few tears. "Now you tell me: How can there be anything left to forgive?"
They sat there for a few more moments in silence, until Jack cleared his throat. "Well, I guess I better be going."
He moved to stand, his legs shaking, but Sydney's hand on his arm stopped him. She moved closer to him and placed her head on his shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Jack closed his eyes, but didn't say a word. He slowly pulled back, looked at his daughter one last time, and then stood. Sydney's eyes followed his figure until he disappeared behind the door.
Then she curled up on the couch, knees pulled up to her chest, and let the full force of emotion overtake her body.
* * * *
Vaughn sat in his car across the street, waiting for Jack to leave. He had returned with the food some time ago, but knew he needed to give them time to say everything that needed to be said. So he waited.
Vaughn got out of his car as soon as Jack's was out of sight. He walked up to the front door and let himself in. The sound of her quiet sobbing immediately filled his ears. He quietly placed the food down on the kitchen counter and walked into the living room.
He found Sydney curled up in the corner of the couch, face wet from tears, eye red-rimmed. She looked up when she saw him. Vaughn sat down beside her and pulled her into his arms.
Vaughn said nothing. There were no words. He did the only thing he could do. He held her all night long, until her sobs had all but subsided and the sun had come up.
* * *
Sydney and Vaughn had both drifted off to sleep, just as the sun took its place in the sky. Vaughn didn't know how long they'd been sleeping, when he found the sunlight forcing his eyes open. He looked down at Sydney. Her cheeks were still stained with dried tears. She'd cried herself to sleep.
It broke Vaughn's heart to see her like this. He wished he could take it all away. In that moment, he wondered if he had made the right decision. Maybe Sydney would have been better off not knowing. She would have been saved three months of heartache.
Sydney slowly stirred. She rubbed at her eyes and opened them up, lifting her head to look at Vaughn. Then she raised her hand and caressed his cheek.
"Thank you," she whispered.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world right now," he replied.
She shook her head and sat up. "No, thank you for making my father tell me the truth."
Vaughn raised his eyebrows. "Seeing what it's done to you...I was beginning to question whether I made the right decision."
She nodded. "You did. I've already lost so much time with my father, I would have regretted missing the time we have left."
Vaughn placed a soft kiss on her forehead. Sydney squeezed her eyes shut and forced back approaching tears. She then looked at Vaughn.
"Last week, at the arcade...you had just come from seeing my father. That's why you were acting the way you were."
Vaughn bobbed his head. "I hated keeping it from you Sydney, but I needed to give Jack the time to make the right decision."
"I know," she said with a nod. Her brow wrinkled a bit. "That was your day off. What did you go to see my dad about?"
Vaughn lowered his eyes. He didn't want to lie to her. He wasn't even sure he could come up with a lie that she would actually believe. But telling her the truth would ruin any hope of eventually surprising her with a proposal.
He looked into her eyes, so filled with sadness, devoid of hope. And then he thought of Jack and how precious life really is. He knew tomorrow wasn't promised to anyone. He had learned that lesson all too well. He had waited before. He had waited for the perfect moment...and that moment had been stolen away from them. Who's to say it wouldn't happen again? Maybe there are no perfect moments, he thought.
Vaughn swallowed hard and smiled nervously. "This isn't how this was supposed to go. But I don't want to lie to you, Sydney. I was there to tell your father of my intention to propose."
Sydney's eyes widened, but Vaughn went on. "It was supposed to be a surprise. When I told your father, I was planning on proposing in a week. Today, actually. I was going to surprise you with a trip to Santa Barbara and I was going to propose to you the way I planned to all of those years ago. But, obviously, the plans changed. I figured I would wait until there was a better time. But I wanted to make sure that, if you accepted, we could have the wedding as soon as possible so your father could be there."
Sydney found herself biting at her bottom lip, but didn't say a word as Vaughn continued. "This is just about the worst time to do this, I know. But the element of surprise is gone. And I was sitting here thinking of Jack...about how life can take such unexpected turns. Last time, I had it all planned out, too. I wanted it to be perfect. Well, I guess I'm 0-2. Maybe I'm waiting for a moment that will never happen. As corny as it sounds, maybe all we have is today. I guess I'm just reminded of how little time we all have and how we shouldn't take anything for granted. I don't want to waste anymore time, Sydney."
Vaughn took Sydney's hands in his. He took a deep breath and searched for the right words. He was just about to speak, when Sydney beat him to it.
"Yes," she said so softly he almost didn't hear her.
Vaughn's eyebrows raised up in surprise. Then he leaned forward and cupped his face in her hands. Their lips met in a bittersweet kiss.
They pulled way and Vaughn looked at Sydney. He shook his head sadly.
"This is supposed to be one of the happiest days of our lives. We're supposed to remember it forever."
Sydney smiled, as tears pooled in her eyes. "We will." She took Vaughn's hands in hers. "I don't need Santa Barbara or a fancy meal or even a deformed giraffe," she said with a shaky laugh. "I just need you. And when I look back on this day, I'll think of how you gave me hope when I didn't think there was any left. I'll remember how you gave me something to look forward to when I was dreading even the next minute. It's not about the perfect moment, Vaughn. It's about starting a life together. We know better than anyone that life has its ups and downs. Marriage is about enjoying the ups and surviving the downs together. There's a reason they put the worse part in the vows. This is one of those times in life and I'm glad that I have you by my side. I wouldn't want it any other way."
Vaughn pulled Sydney into his arms. She placed her head on his shoulder and let the tears begin to fall again. It was probably the first time she had cried tears of happiness and sadness at the same time.
"I love you," Vaughn whispered in her ear.
"I love you, too," she replied softly.
* * * *
Two months later, Sydney stood in her backyard, surrounded by her family and friends and looking down the aisle at the man she loved...the man she was about to pledge to spend the rest of her life with.
"You've never looked more beautiful," came the voice by her side.
She turned to look at her father and linked her arm with his. She could already feel the approaching tears.
"I'm so glad you're here," she said, her voice choked with emotion.
Her father had become a shadow of himself. As a child, he had seemed so strong to her, invincible. She was beginning to realize that her perception of him hadn't changed much from what she had believed as a child. He was her self-appointed protector. And now he seemed so broken. His skin had begun to blister. His breathing grew labored after only short distances. His limbs would shake. He now walked with a cane.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," he replied softly, as he squeezed his daughter's hand.
Then they each took a deep breath and slowly walked down the aisle, past the smiling faces of family and friends.
Sydney's eyes met Vaughn's as they came to an archway, which was covered with wildflowers. She then turned to her father. There was no veil to lift. She wore a simple knee-length white silk dress with spaghetti straps. Jack leaned forward and kissed Sydney on the cheek. Then he took her hand and placed it in Vaughn's.
Jack and Vaughn exchanged a look, but no words passed between them. Jack was entrusting Vaughn with his daughter now and Vaughn knew he would spend his life making her as happy as possible.
Jack turned and took his seat. Sydney and Vaughn moved to face each other, smiles spread across their faces.
The minister began. "We gather here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony. Today, they are embarking on a journey together. It will not be an easy journey. Life is never an easy journey. But Sydney and Vaughn are fortunate. They are fortunate because so many people will have to make that journey alone. They will not. They will have each other to share the good times and weather the bad times."
Vaughn squeezed Sydney's hands. She looked into his eyes and saw her future, a life filled with love and happiness and anything else life threw at them. Then she looked at her father, who sat nearby. In his eyes, she saw her past, a life filled with sadness and regret...and love.
She was looking at the two most important men in her life. One, she was about to say goodbye to. The other, she was just beginning a life with. She was at a crossroads. Life as she knew it was about to change forever and just as the moment felt overwhelming, her father offered her a rare smile.
It said everything was going to be okay. It said he would always be with her.
She turned back to face Vaughn and looked into his eyes. He smiled at her, one that reached his eyes, and in his smile she saw same thing.
She squeezed his hands in hers and returned the smile...a smile that said there wasn't another man in this world she would rather make this journey with.